Written in 2002 on Monday the 2nd of September, one month into my overseas trip to Europe.
Walking out of the plane, heading towards customs through the long corridor with the travelator beside me, and up above me the smiling face of George Bush welcomes me to the USA, the home of the brave, the land of the free. The scene brings back the frightening memories of Jeff Kennett’s face plastered on that billboard on the Tullamarine Freeway welcoming visitors to Victoria back in the days of his reign of terror. Macbeth was told by the prophetic witches to beware the Ides of March. Call me a witch if you must, but I tell you now, beware the smiling face of a politician welcoming you into their realm!
Within the first hour of my stay in LA, I encountered the stereotypical badass jive-talking take-no-shit female African-American that we all know and love. This particular lady happened to be a bus driver, and she so incredibly impressed me with her attitude that I wanted to stay on her bus for the entire day and just listen to her bad mouth anyone and anything that gave her the shits. My favourite line, in what was an admittedly very crowded bus: “I ain’t movin’ this bus until y’all move your arses to the back and gimme some room.”
My first impressions of LA was of a place that had just survived a nuclear armageddon. Everything had a murky feel to it and the footpaths and roads were full of cracks with most things around me looking as if they were about to fall apart. The air was smoggy and the LA police department seemed to be everywhere. I even saw one cop on a footpath of a main road flash a torch into the eyes of some emaciated white dude and then pull up his pants looking for puncture wounds from heroin injections whilst the victim of this over-policing was proclaiming his innocence, proclaiming in full voice that he never shot up in his life.
But before the day was through, I could not resist the temptation to play some basketball on the hallowed public courts of Venice Beach. I had been eyeing off the basketballers for a good thirty minutes before I was confident enough to actually play against the Americans who take the game a little more seriously than those of us in Australia. Playing basketball on the courts of Venice Beach against smart-mouth Americans was quite a thrill for me after having grown up with the game. I felt I let Australia down with my poor shooting, which has always been the bane of my basketballing career, but I did not do too badly overall, even though I did nothing to counter the white-men-can’t-jump cliche. And happily, I am now proudly sporting the slightly scarred remnants of a cut to my upper lip that was inflicted upon me by an overzealous defender as I was driving to the ring to score during my time on court. It is the only injury I can ever say I was happy to endure. I could bore you all with many more details about the way they play their basketball on Venice Beach, but I doubt many of you would be interested. In fact this whole paragraph has probably been a disappointment for many of you, so I might have to pull something out with the next.
From LA, I went to London. In London there is a train station that is part of the underground called Cockfosters. It made me laugh. A lot.
After London I went to Vienna. In German, Vienna is spelt Wien, and Viennese becomes Wiener. So naturally enough, many of the shops were prefixed with the title Wiener, and there was even a store called Wienerwald. That made me laugh too. And out loud. Is finding such puerile humour hilarious wrong for a man of twenty-three years?
Whilst playing basketball on the courts of Venice Beach may be the highlight of my trip, being entertained by two Slovakians and a Czech playing their own brand of death metal with a classical guitar as accompaniment on an overnight train ride from Vienna to Bologna is most certainly in my top-five European moments. I was thinking that my first train journey through Europe would be incredibly underwhelming, but the three dudes from the former Czechoslavakian republic who I shared my cabin with managed to turn the situation into a night of much mirth.
My cabin compatriots began with traditional Slovakian songs sung out of key, which was quite amusing in its own right, but when they switched to acoustic death metal, laughter could not be held back. The Czechs and the Slovakian even did the sweet chordal verses that segue into the heavy, throaty and oh-so-incredibly-hilarious chorus of angst, pain and catharsis. Death metal done Balkan style won me over that night, and I can say most certainly that never before had I entertained the possibility of experiencing it.
They handed the guitar to me after their very fine performances and I got them singing the “aah-aah-aah” backing vocal snippets to the chorus of Like Wow Wipeout by the Hoodoo Gurus. Like Wow was the best example of a traditional Australian song that I could think of at the time. The magical chords of Khe Sanh have thus far eluded me (does that make me any less an Australian?), so the Gurus had to suffice that night. Nonetheless, my new Balkan friends seemed to be happy with the choice of song and much international bridge building was done on the way to Bologna.
I am in Greece at the moment, in the urban wasteland that is the port town of Patras. The scenery of forrested mountains and islands in the distance emerging from the sea is magnificent, but the city itself is a little third-world in terms of urban planning. Much like the backyard of a good Greek suburban home, the city is nothing but concrete. Nonetheless, it has a chaotic charm to it that I am sure I would soon get tired of if I stayed here much longer, but right now, I am enjoying its dilapidatedness.
And I strongly recommend listening to Etta James sing the songs of Billie Holiday as the sun emerges from a fiery orange horizon that colours the skyline over the mountainous Greek isles that pepper the azure-blue Ionian sea. With the wind blowing through your bones on the overnight ferry ride from the Italian port of Brindisi to Patras on the north west coast of the Peloponnese, not even the malodorous scent of burnt ferry fuel can debase the beauty.